Habitat Enhancer Jack McShane Accepts Karl Connell Award 2010

At the annual Forestry Dinner and silent auction held on November 5 at SUNY-Delhi, Andes resident Jack McShane accepted the Karl Connell Award presented by the Forestry Program. McShane, a self-prescribed “habitat enhancer”, has a long, passionate relationship with the woods. “I was on the Watershed Forestry Committee with Karl Connell. I must say it’s an honor to receive the award; but the real honor is having worked with a man like Karl. He was a fine gentleman, an old-school lawyer who taught me a lot as the Watershed Forestry Program evolved. He was vital to the negotiations with NYC and particularly how the conservation easement contract was worded. He brought to your attention the nuance of minor detail, the difference between a colon and semicolon, and what comes after it. He protected the watershed landowner with words and punctuation. He understood what was at stake: short-term as a landowner, but long-term for the Catskills in general.”

Jack’s interest in nature brought him into the conservation arena. “I was attracted to organizations watching out for the Catskills. At the Catskills Forest Association (CFA), Bob Bishop Sr. was responsible for getting me on that board. I started with CFA in the early 80s, served on their board for 12 years, president for 8. During that time, I went to the Master Forest Owners program at Cornell, which is a five-day workshop, reviewing the basics of good forestry practices and land stewardship. Gary Goff, a Cornell educator asked that you pass on what you learn to new landowners who need help and encouragement. I did it for many years, made many friends, and had lots of woods walks on my own property where I could show them successful forest practices that might be incorporated on their own.”

Around the same time, the Watershed Forestry Task Force was formed; Jack was CFA president. “CFA didn’t have the structure to undertake the task force or the recommended forestry program on behalf of the City. But WAC did have what was needed and it was appropriate for the Watershed Forestry Program to be housed there.”

Jack now serves on the Catskill Landowners Association (CLA), a group of high-profile landowners, like the Tuscarora Club, Kingdon Gould and Karl Connell. “They were concerned with trespass on their streams. The discrepancy about the navigability of the streams on private properties was the issue that initiated CLA,” said Jack. “When that issue was resolved, CLA morphed into an all-encompassing private property owner rights organization. Now, when an issue comes up, the Association does diligent research, takes a stance and enlightens landowners to the issue and their related rights. For example, a number of towns added properties to their Proposed Hamlet Extension Areas which deny landowners the right to sell their property to NYC, prior to contact the landowner. The towns, in essence, had taken private property rights without the landowner’s consent. CLA helps town planning and zoning boards see the ramifications of some of their policies.”

Originally from Long Island, Jack was born in Brooklyn’s Flatbush area. A city kid by birth, Jack was always a naturalist at heart. “My mom used to take me and my younger brother to “the woods” where we’d collect acorns and save them in old cigar boxes. Then we moved to Queens which had lots of parks, so the woods became my backyard. I was always in the woods. There’d be a ball game in front of our house but I’d be out exploring. Some kids like baseball, others nature. If kids are lucky enough to experience nature, it opens a whole other world to them. It’s really something else”

Jack opts for the ’something else’ usually hiking unknown woodlands, tracking wildlife, and hunting pheasants, quail and cottontail rabbits. “It was so innocent back then,” said Jack. “We’d fish for “silvies” and we even stocked a little unknown pond down the way.” Not too long after, Jack encountered his first development encroachment. “I could hear the sound of a bulldozer filling in the pond. I ran up just in time to hear the bulldozer operator yell out ‘Hey kid – if you hurry you can catch some of these fish with your bare hands.’ It gave me a mindset that forever connected development with heartbreak.”

Jack soon discovered other places to explore and a passion for bow-hunting in Westchester. “We’d find a perfect hunting spot and before you knew it, you’d see the surveyor’s stakes, then the McMansions, and the new landowners didn’t want us in their backyards. So we had to move on. We knew those spots so well, where the great horned owl roosted and small ponds where ducks settled in, you got to know the nature there.”

Filled with woodlands wanderlust, Jack almost quit high school. After enlisting in the Navy Air Reserves, he bounced around to California and Mexico where surfing was his passion. “I went to New York State Ranger School in 1961 and that was where I got a great education. There I learned how to work hard. I was taught how to estimate timber, make plates, all the basics of forestry and surveying that I still use today.”

A near-perfect civil service test landed him a spot on the New York Police Department where he worked for almost 22 years in the Upper West Side’s 20th Precinct. “My beat covered from Lincoln Center to West 86th Street, Central Park to the River, in Manhattan. I worked with some really good guys that were not corrupt, although it was rampant at the time. My wife Nancy worked for American Airlines and we were comfortable and did a lot of traveling which was easy back then. I worked a lot of overtime, which was because of the arrests mandated by the chaos on the streets. Instead of money, I always took my payment as time on the books, at the rate of time and a half. We’d come up here to the Catskills.” Jack graduated Summa Cum Laude from New York Institute of Technology, earning a B.S. in human psychology and criminal justice. This education gave him a better understanding of why people acted the way they did which made his job a lot easier.

Jack came to the Catskills region in 1973, when he and Nancy bought 20 acres near Hancock. What started as a secluded fishing weekend getaway with his son Kris, the property soon fell to the same fate as his childhood woodlands. Development took over and the place soon lost its appeal. “We started looking for 100 acres when we were still in Hancock,” continued Jack. “We used to ski in Windham, but we didn’t want to be in a ski town. We made a circle on the map around Andes, where much of the land was owned by NYC and we felt comfortable in the fact that it would remain pristine.” In 1986, the couple purchased the secluded spot on Bussey Hollow Road in Andes. Snuggled between the Shaver and Wolfe Hollows, they built their house with cherry wood gifted to them from Bob Bishop Sr. and the manpower of friends like John Ruchar. “The original property was 235 acres on this side. In 2006, we bought the 135 acres on the other side of the road. Often, I pinch myself and think is this really mine? Of course, I realize that it is just my watch, but it will be secure from development during it.”

Since retiring in 1983, Jack has stepped up his participation and advocacy for responsible development and land stewardship in the Catskills. Here’s his take on a few topics of interest.

What advice do you have for those looking to responsibly steward their woodlands?
My advice is to go on woods walks and workshops sponsored by local organizations such as CFA and NY Forest Owners Association. Get a Master Forest Owner who will give objective advice to look at your land and consider his recommendations. The more knowledge you have, the better you’ll understand good forestry practices and ultimately you’ll steward your land intelligently.

As a WAC forestry participant, what programs have you found beneficial to you as a landowner?
As a forestry participant, I’ve benefitted from Best Management Practices placed on my land. The Council’s Forestry Program paid for my Forest Management Plan (FMP). The FMP covered timber harvesting, and integrated a combination of forest benefits. I think of it as a guide by which to steward my woodlands. The forest is so dynamic; you never know what is going to happen. There was an outbreak of Forest Tent Caterpillar and the consequent three years of defoliations resulted in a salvage cut of many large red oaks that died. This was not in the plan. Nature isn’t interested in aesthetics as many of us, including myself are. Nature likes thinks messy; but you get diversified habitats in the process.

Do you hold a 480A Plan?
Tools like the 480A Plan are helpful to forest landowners, but they require you to follow a Forest Management Plan for 10 years. If you run into financial trouble and need to pull timber off your land to meet the tax bill, the 480A becomes a hindrance to that activity. If that forest management plan recommends a noncommercial thinning, you have to do it and you have to pay for it. And the 480A is for 10 years, so you’re committed to seeing it through. I don’t hold a 480A through DEC even though I would qualify for an 80% reduction in our land taxes (which my neighbors would have to absorb somehow). I prefer the freedom to do what I want on my land, but that’s only because I am actively working it.

What has been your most rewarding outdoor experience in the Catskills?
Just being in my own woodlands, I’ve been able to watch the successes and failures of good environmental stewardship practices. For me, a success was installing the ponds and how they’ve attracted different wildlife. I routinely see muskrats, herons, kingfishers, ducks, and beaver where there used to be none. As for a practice that didn’t go so well? I planted this very special apple tree, took the protector off one day and along comes this buck and rubs it to total destruction. Here he destroyed the very tree that was going to grow up and feed him apples. You just never know what’s going to work and what’s not, unless you try it.

What’s the funniest thing you’ve seen happen in the woods? 
I started bow hunting at age 17. For most of my life, I’ve watched nature do her thing. About 15 years ago, I was turkey hunting and had set a decoy about 20 yards out from where I was sitting and started calling. To my left, a chipmunk comes out of his rock cluster, sees the decoy, freaks out and hides. He does this three more times, but then finally charges the decoy, whacked it at full speed and bounced off it. It was a classic case of territoriality meltdown.

What critical issues concerning forestry do you see today?
These invasive insects are really doing a number on the trees. When I graduated from Ranger school, everything was positive, silviculture, how to plant where and when. Today, everyone’s on the defensive, dealing with invasives. I’m worried what the forests will look like in the future with EAB (Emerald Ash Borer) now rampant and apparently unstoppable and the potential of the Asian Longhorn Beetle (ALB). We’re losing so many species like chestnut, elm, butternut, walnut from other pathogens and this makes me somewhat pessimistic. This is basically man’s fault, as commerce has caused the importation of these exotic pests, of which our forest trees lack immunity. I don’t think people envision the inevitable devastation which is on its way. Ash trees may not be here anymore, creating a major hole in the forest. There are no easy answers to addressing invasives. These insects are going to impact the area, change our forest, resulting in entirely different woodlands in 50 years or so.

What do you recommend people do to protect the Catskills?
Restrict further parcelization and development; it’s the only way to protect it.